In pre-Columbian times, the Pacific Nicaragua was a relatively densely populated region that belonged to the periphery of the Aztec Empire. In 1522-24 the Spaniards conquered this area from Panama and founded León and Granada, which would remain the country’s most important cities for centuries. In the colonial times, Nicaragua was subordinate to the Captain General Guatemala. It was a prosperous focal point of Spanish rule and even then claimed the Mosquitia (Atlantic coast), without ever being able to enforce effective control of this huge and impassable area. Beyond the settlement border, which ran through the central mountain region, lived Indian ethnic groups, who made common cause with the pirates and the English and repeatedly joined the devastating raids up the Río San Juan and the Río Coco. Useful information on history can be found on the website of the Historical Institute IHNCA of the Catholic University UCA, in the dossier Latin America of the Federal Agency for Political Education, on Wikipedia and in the country study of the US government.
In 1821 Nicaragua, together with Mexico, gained independence from Spain. The former provinces of the General Capitanate of Guatemala initially formed the “Central American Federation”. This weak union of states disintegrated in 1838, so that Nicaragua did not emerge as an independent nation state until 1839. The 19th century was then heavily influenced by the rivalry between the Liberal and Conservative Party, with their main towns León and Granada. The numerous civil wars made Nicaragua an unstable country and a hotspot in international politics. At the invitation of the Liberal Party, the American William Walker came in 1855 entered the country with a mercenary force and was elected president. Walker’s intention was to bring Nicaragua and the now important canal route across the Río San Juan under the control of the southern United States. When this colonial project turned out to be in all its hideousness, it was expelled in 1857 with the help of Costa Rica and Honduras. The war against the “filibusters” (= adventurers and conquerors) is considered by the Central Americans to be their real war of independence.
The outstanding figure at the end of the 19th century was the Liberal President José Santos Zelayawho ruled from 1893-1909. Zelaya wanted to make his backward country militarily and economically strong. He introduced the separation of church and state, and he promoted the modernization of administration, export production and the construction of railways. In terms of foreign policy, he was able to force the integration of the Mosquitia into the nation-state and thus initially achieved great success. However, his nationalistic course on the canal earned him the irreconcilable hostility of the USA. In 1903 the US Congress decided to support the separation of Panama from Colombia and to build the canal there. When Zelaya dared to pursue his own canal project and contact Japan and Germany for this, he was declared a villain by Washington.
From 1912-1933, the US occupied the country permanently, turning it into a de facto US protectorate. Foreign and domestic policy, public finances, and the railroad came under US direct control. The country was forced to abandon the construction of an interoceanic canal for good. The US naval forces were stationed permanently in Nicaragua, one of countries in Central America according to aristmarketing. Augusto C. Sandino led against this occupation in the years 1927-1933 a guerrilla war, which was celebrated and supported throughout Latin America as a war of liberation. In fact, the US Marines were withdrawn in 1933, and Sandino made a peace agreement with the newly elected President Sacasa. But with the newly established National Guard, the Marines left behind an instrument of power that guaranteed US influence even without its own troops. The head of the National Guard, Anastasio Somoza, had Sandino murdered and seized power in 1936. He established the rule of the Somoza family, which can be seen as a prime example of a tropical dictatorship in the “backyard” of the USA. Somoza guaranteed the “stability” of the country, but personal enrichment.
In 1979 the dictator Somoza was overthrown in a long, bloody popular uprising. In the end, the struggle was supported by a broad coalition including the bourgeois-conservative camp. Its most important and by far the most influential force was the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional), which was founded in 1961 as a guerrilla or liberation army based on the Cuban model. The “Sandinista Revolution” meant a fundamental new beginning and an unprecedented spirit of optimism: the state apparatus and army were completely rebuilt, a literacy campaign and agricultural reform were carried out, social and development programs were supposed to meet the demand for social justice, new schools and poetry workshops promote cultural creativity. In foreign policy, Nicaragua took up relations with Cuba and the socialist countries; the close ties to the USA were replaced by the principle of non-alignment. FSLN commander Daniel Ortega Saavedra became president who was initially appointed by the transitional government and then elected by the population in 1984 with a large majority.
The broad united front of 1979 soon fell apart. The revolutionary period of the 1980’s was determined by the sharp criticism of the bourgeois politicians and businessmen of the supposedly socialist planned economy of the FSLN government. The US government under President Reagan saw Nicaragua as a second Cuba and imposed a trade embargo. During these years, little Nicaragua was at the center of the East-West contrast and the world public. From 1984 the US government financed armed resistance groups, the so-called Contra who carried out attacks from Honduras and Costa Rica and who destabilized the revolutionary regime. As part of the Central American peace process in Esquipulas, the war with the Contra was ended in 1987/88 and a process of national reconciliation and reintegration of the fighters into society began.
In the 1990 elections, the FSLN government was unexpectedly voted out of office. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro became the new president at the head of the UN opposition alliance. Daniel Ortega accepted the defeat and negotiated a peaceful change of government. In the years that followed, the traces of the revolution were removed. As part of a neoliberal privatization and austerity policy, the state’s entire involvement in economic and social policy was liquidated. Politics also experienced a restorative phase. The bourgeois politicians returned from exile, and the arch-conservative Catholic clergy regained great influence. The Liberal Party, which went under with Somoza in 1979, became a leading force again and was able to provide presidents, Arnoldo Alemán (1996-2002) and Enrique Bolaños (2002-2007), who succeeded Violeta Barrios.
After eleven years of revolution, the country seemed to have returned to the starting point in the 1990’s: It was still one of the poorest countries on the American continent, again it was politically and economically overly dependent on the great power in the north. Only formal democracy with free elections seemed to have remained from the 1979 revolution.